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Interviewed by
Danielle Street
Wednesday 16th April, 2014 3:45PM

Recently formed Auckland group Neo-Waco is the new project of Zak Penney, who played with Teen Hygiene before having a self-described flip out and backing away from writing music. After a three year hiatus, Penney got back on the song-writing bandwagon and is making music that he says is a kind of “aggregator device” pillaging from the sounds of the 1960s counter culture.

We spoke to Penney ahead of the group’s first live show at Free Trial Period this Saturday about his new project and the significance of their namesake, the 1993 Waco Siege, which incidentally ended on the same date as this weekend’s gig. Take a listen to the group’s first single ‘Hammer From The Skies’ and read the interview below...

Firstly, please introduce yourselves...

Me (Zak) guitar, singing, Phil: guitar, singing, Anna: guitar, singing.

Tell me about the start of Neo-Waco… what pushed you to start making music together?

From about late 2008 to late 2010 I sang and played guitar in this band called Teen Hygiene with Ben who is now the drummer of the All Seeing Hand. I flipped out when we were recording for our second album and I stopped writing songs, yet was putting up resistance to playing shows until we had "new material", which was really just a lame excuse covering up the fact that I just didn't feel confident playing anymore. So I just ran away from it without even really owning up that I was ending the band.

I came back up to Auckland and didn't go to a music show for about three years. It was maybe January 2013 that Anna intuited that I was repressing the enjoyment I got from writing songs and I borrowed my friend’s guitar and wrote the track ‘Hammer from the Skies’. There was another long period after that and I had a week off in May 2013 and made up about nine more songs, all of which lingered on the multitrack recording app on my phone until this January (always the time of renewal) I decided to buy some recording gear and try and do this project.

How would you describe your sound?

I guess I like to think a lot about psychedelic fallout... In a broader sense, the broken social, spiritual and political promises of the 1960s counterculture. Musically there are a really interesting bunch of trajectories that take flight from that. You have the early Jesus Music movement stemming from the Haight-Ashbury Jesus Freak thing, notably Larry Norman, a Born-Again slate-wiping spiritual psych, you have the nightmarish ecstatic-nihilist garbage-psych of The Stooges first album etc. You've got the transcendentalist aims of the movement taking shape again in a different form with rave culture, the mechanized kick drum hypnosis under the swinging clock of a different mind-altering substance.

I think nowadays we have so much music and such an expansive access to it that every band or artist acts more like a sort of aggregator-device, and I guess that is how you could describe our sound, some sort of device that pillages the aforementioned elements and their surrounds... It takes it a bit further than nostalgic era-worship and a bit further than some sort of mash-up type methodology, the project's authenticity comes from the individuation of this act of compiling.

Tell me about choosing Neo-Waco as a band name, is it a reference to the Waco Massacre of 1993?

Yeah it is. Do you know just yesterday morning I was watching this great film Waco: the Rules of Engagement and it reminded me that the Waco siege happened on April 19th 1993. We are playing our first show on April the 19th!

I was obsessed for a long time with the supposed significance of April the 19th. Firstly it's Easter Saturday, which is in some Christian denominations practiced as this day in which you imagine and try to live out the loss of hope that the apostles felt when the resurrection prophecy was still unfulfilled. So it already at least in the Judeo-Christian framework has somber connotations. On top of that, this week in history, in particular the dates of April the 19th and the 20th, have had so many immensely significant, often tragic events take place. There was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in '43, siege of the Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord compound in '85, the Waco siege in '93, the Oklahoma city bombings in '95, (also Albert Hofmann's first proper dose of acid was taken on the 19th, which is commemorated as "Bicycle Day" because he rode home on a bicycle afterward) and on the 20th there's the Columbine shootings, Hitler's birthday, the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010...

On top of THAT, this week I've been following this Bundy Ranch story, in which a rancher in Nevada with an increasing militia support was set to have a showdown with the feds. He hadn't paid any cattle grazing fees since 1993, owed about US$1 million in taxes and the feds were coming to confiscate some of his cattle. During the tensions that were building over the standoff, commentators were speculating that it could be the next Waco, but the feds just pulled out the other day. Also the day I'm writing this (Tuesday April 15th) there is going to be this "blood moon" eclipse, which is speculated by this preacher John Hagee to be the fulfillment of Acts 2:20, "The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before that great and glorious Day of the Lord." So yeah, that’s this week in April anyway, it's quite intense.

I guess the name Neo-Waco was thinking about these ideas around cyclical conflicts between different individual and collective ideas of freedom, which were thrown about constantly in the Waco court case in defense of both parties. I guess the siege kind of encompasses this. Neo just means young, contemporary, etc. I liked this thing I once read about Sonic Youth choosing their band name, they were into the way reggae artists would bookend their pseudonyms with "Youth", like the artist "Big Youth". This happened in hardcore as well with Reagan Youth, and the "Youth crew" sub-movement which used "youth" as this sort of constant trope in their band names and song titles. In the last couple of years we've heard lots of rappers with "Young", "Yung" bookends to their names. I guess using the "Neo" was sort of trying to do the same thing. Using this idea of the spiritual/ideological radical militia and it's youth contingent.

How do you feel about the local music scene? How do you think it compares with other regions/countries in your experience?

I'm ashamed to admit I really don't know much about what's going on. I've been so reclusive in terms of music shows. I went to this one show at FTP [Free Trial Period] on the 25th of January and saw Kraus, Mermaidens, I.R.L & Diana Tribute. That show was awesome, I liked all of the bands. There were a nice bunch of people there too. But yeah... I don't know too much about the local music scene.

You are playing at FTP this week for your first gig - how did that get lined up?

I used to play in this side project band called Pen Island with Alex who lives at/partly runs the FTP space, we've known each other for a while. I just told him I was working on something and I liked that aforementioned show so much that afterward I strongly implied that I'd like to play there so he asked me to do it for this one.

The gig is also crossed with an exhibition… what role does visual arts play in your music making?

I like to think a lot about album covers and how song titles would work with them, the concept of an album/single/ep aesthetic. Sometimes the imagined aesthetic even helps to shape the songwriting process, because I find myself thinking of album covers before I even have music to go with them. I like it when there’s somebody in a band that controls the aesthetic, and they don't have to outsource it, or they work regularly with an artist so they have an aesthetic consistency. There are so many great bands that have great music but they outsource to one of their mates who deeply sucks and they don't have the heart to tell them that they want to change his/her design, and it has nothing to do with the band's conceptual framework.

Are you going to encompass any visual elements when playing live?

Not at this time.

Are you playing all original music, covers… or a mix?

Just originals.

If you had to cover one song from any artist, what would it be?

There are so many. I'd like to be able to do a stirring rendition of this song ‘Primitive Desire’ by Eastbound Expressway. With live guitars it'd be like some sort of disco Tom Petty or something. We've also been really into this song ‘On the Brink of Destruction’ by Barry McGuire, since Chris Heim played it on his Radio New Zealand show Global Village the other night. I like those dystopian/apocalyptic lyrical themes. Phil wants to cover this song ‘Fire Lake’ by Bob Seger. He's also been obsessed for years with this really bad close-to-demise live rendition Elvis did of ‘Burning Love’.

When writing your own music, do you find yourself returning to any themes in particular… politics, religion, love???

The vocal melody usually comes first and mostly consists of nonsense words that have certain phonetic qualities that accentuate the music already made or vice versa. Then the words get fleshed out a little. I guess you could describe the process, if you believe in that Freudian idea of the unconscious (which I don't) as some sort of dredging of the unconscious, like 'automatic' writing or drawing in which the nonsense words are converted into something that means something. There then comes the need for a compromise between what just sounds good and what speaks to the lyrical concept. I find myself usually just keeping it as simple and didactic as possible, leaving whatever nonsense needs to be left in order for it to sound good. There are a few set themes that I like to work with but I might leave those open to your interpretation...

I understand you are getting some recordings down, tell me about that… where are you recording and how are you recording?

We're recording at home, I'm using a cassette four-track and an audio interface to record into the computer, and then playing around with recording the digital capture back into the cassette for different textures. All the drums and bass are programmed with a midi controller and different plugins. I'm trying to stick with the Roland 606, 707, 808 & 909 for drums and an 808 bass synth with only slight frequency tweakage to individuate the bass sound on each of our tracks. The internet is full of tutorials for any kind of recording techniques... I spent months learning to make like EDM and electro-house music just because, and I fell in love with side-chaining which I've been trying to integrate into our music and you'll probably be able to hear that on the track we're releasing today.

What are some of the differences in recording at home or in a studio that would sway you one way or the other?

I guess I simply just like doing it myself, it helps me to write the song and I can spend hours messing around with different methods, which is something one can't do in a studio when you are paying by the hour. I think that since the democratisation that resulted from affordable personal audio hardware and software, production has become just another instrument. It always was to some extent, I guess, it was like the band was collaborating with the engineer and sometimes you can really hear this happening, each producer having their own stamp of individuation. Now the producer can be internalised within the band, or theres the sort of individualist “bedroom” model that is now easier than its ever been. There are up and down sides to this, particularly the loss of the prodigious producer element which could send a fairly good album up into the realms of ecstatic... but I think it gives the artist a chance to be prolific, and I think being prolific is important to being viable as a musician right now. People forget about you sooner than they used to.

A lot of people seem to be reverting to releasing 7” vinyl and cassette singles, as well as using online methods like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, what are your thoughts on this?

I don't know if I'd set out to release anything physical myself, but if the opportunity presented itself it'd be great to do a 12", 7" or cassette. I like the speed & cost efficiency of the online release.

When you’re not making music you like to...

Stop Kauri Dieback disease.

Neo-Waco are playing alongside Emily Edrosa and Moppy on Saturday 19th April at Free Trial Period. Click here for more details.


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